Sydney Dance Company Aims High with New Season
Sydney Opera House, Wednesday 15 March 2023
Reviewed by Heather Clements
Co-Commissioned by Canberra Theatre Centre, Sydney Dance Company’s new season – Ascent – features three very different works, including two world premieres. Ascent opened in Canberra on March 11 and is now playing in the Drama Studio at Sydney Opera House until March 26. It will then tour regionally throughout the year.
Ascent features the work of three leading choreographers in the world of contemporary dance, with the premiere of renowned Spanish choreographer Marina Mascarell’s The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird, the reprise of Antony Hamilton‘s Helpmann award-winning work Forever & Ever and the premiere of Rafael Bonachela’s I Am-ness.
Opening night in Sydney saw the Company’s ever-passionate artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, welcome and address the audience explaining that ‘ascent’ represents his aim for the Company to continue to rise to new heights as a leader in contemporary dance.
Ascent opens with I Am-ness, a new routine by Bonachela featuring four new company dancers: Madeline Harms, Naiara Silva De Matos, Riley Fitzgerald and Piran Scott. Set to the beautifully soaring strings of Pēteris Vasks’ ‘Lonely Angel’, this 15-minute work is a well-formed presentation of Bonachela’s signature style of contemporary dance. It is complete with refined technique, fluidity of movement, intricate partner work and sensitive performance qualities. Bonachela creates such complex and flowing choreography between his dancers in this work that it echoes leaves moving down stream in the water babbling over rocks.
The misty staging and dramatic lighting by Damien Cooper heightens the mood of I Am-ness. As always, the strength and artistry of Sydney Dance Company’s dancers is perfectly showcased in their small ensemble pieces, and Bonachela manages to cleverly bring individual moments back together through physical and emotional connections.
The second work in Ascent is The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird by international guest creator Marina Mascarell, who will soon take up her new position as Artistic Director of Danish Dance Theatre. With just seven dancers in this routine, the piece feels more epic thanks to the creative use of sails and ropes as a feature of the dance – effectively becoming the eighth, and main, character in the work.
Often such elaborate props can become a distraction and impede on the dancers and the choreography; but this piece, on the whole, avoids this struggle. Dancers successfully negotiated the ropes, silk fabric sails, ballasts and pulleys effortlessly to present Mascarell’s vision on stage. Accompanied by another beautiful ‘Australiana’ soundscape by composer Nick Wales, Mascarell’s gentle and patient choreography results in a dance work that is like watching a painting in motion. The flowing costuming reflects the movement of the sails, adding to the overall concept on stage. Relief was viscerally felt when the dancers started moving in unison and direction for the first time towards the end of the work.
Overall, this was an interesting piece from the first international choreographer the Sydney Dance Company has employed since Covid. With the prop/installation being the integral element of this dance work, The Shell, A Ghost, The Host & The Lyrebird is also likely representing the ‘constant change’ in our world as each performance is probably different due to working with the uncertainty of the sails and pulleys.
After interval, Ascent takes a dramatic turn with the reprise of Antony Hamilton’s award-winning Forever & Ever, first performed by Sydney Dance Company in 2018. Antony is the current Artistic Director and co-CEO of Chunky Move in Melbourne.
An energetic score by Julian Hamilton (The Presets) sets the scene for this bold work performed by the whole Company. The tribal-techno-house beats engage the dancers and audiences to the point of hypnosis. The monochrome colours of the costuming, staging and lighting match the repetitive beats. Forever & Ever is eccentric in every way – style, costume, theme and movement. From the slow opening walk-in of characters in hoods set against solo dancer Jesse Scales, to the street dancers in oversized hoodies, and highly-intricate syncopated body movements performed by the group.
Stylistically, Forever & Ever is sublime. The use of high-contrast block colours, spotlights, strobe lighting, lasers, stark costuming and repetition sets the perfect backdrop for Hamilton’s diverse and precise choreography, creating dynamic shapes, layers and patterns on stage. Credit to the lighting designer Ben Cisterne and costume designer Paula Levis; who had the dancers gradually strip down their physical layers and colours over the course of the piece.
This is a truly captivating piece with varying elements from all dancers. Hamilton’s choreography is so complicated that when performed effortlessly in unison it comes across as almost simplistic. Spatial and visual geometry come together to see the dancers move around as a group to the unrelenting beat to present shapes, patterns and a bloody good time on stage. Forever & Ever culminates in the much-celebrated sharp precision choreography of hands, arms, legs and bodies in layered groups. It’s an assault on the senses to try and take it all in.
Forever & Ever is a great routine for Sydney Dance Company to revive as it celebrates both the creativity and eccentricity of contemporary dance that has much to offer both old and new audiences. As their blub states: “(This show explores) ideas of order, chaos, popular culture and human behaviour, this boundary-pushing work is a bold and thrilling theatrical experience that is not to be missed.”
As an effort to start the New Year on a high, Ascent is a well-balanced triple bill from Sydney Dance Company showcasing the Company’s physical strength, fine technique, creative ability and continued relevance in such a youthful ensemble.
Sydney Dance Company’s Ascent is currently playing at the Sydney Opera House until March 26. It will then tour regionally.